By ALEX MALM
Superintendent Lynn Dambruch was flanked by members of her Administration and the School Committee in the Council Chambers Monday night as the department defended its proposed …
By ALEX MALM
Superintendent Lynn Dambruch was flanked by members of her Administration and the School Committee in the Council Chambers Monday night as the department defended its proposed $178.6 million budget.
Out of that amount, $134.9 million would come from local appropriations.
As a way to offset the local appropriation, Mayor Frank Picozzi proposes that $1.2 million come from American Rescue Plan Act funds. He also proposed that if schools receive additional state aid after the budget is approved that it would offset the ARPA appropriation.
“There is one caveat attached to this budget proposal; this Administration believes strongly that additional State aid should offset City contributions of either City or ARPA funding to the WPS budget. The Administration of the WPS has agreed to this caveat. We may know this before the City budget is enacted, and I will propose a change in City contributions at that time if additional State school aid materialize,” Picozzi’s budget address reads. “If that is not known in late May, when the City must act on a final budget, I will insist that additional State aid offset City contributions or be reserved for the future year.”
Ward 2 Councilman Jeremy Rix pointed to a court decision that once a local appropriation is approved and additional state aid is provided after the budget is approved then the full state aid would still be given to the school district.
“In Dawson v. Clark, the Rhode Island Supreme Court stated that “once an appropriation is made by a city council or town meeting for use of the school committee, the expenditure of those funds so appropriated is within the committee’s sole and exclusive jurisdiction.”
The court decision was cited in a 2005 Rhode Island Commissioner of Education decision regarding the city and the school committee. It was determined that the city had to turn over $600,000 in state aid after originally withholding it since it wasn’t part of the original budget and came in after the budget was approved.
“In June 2003, the City appropriated $135,653,602 to the School Committee. The Committee is entitled to spend those monies and the City is obligated to fund the appropriation,” the ruling read. “In July 2003, the General Assembly allocated an additional $600,000 in state education aid to the City. As §16-7-23(b) states, these funds are to supplement previously-allocated monies and they must be appropriated by the municipality to the school committee in the same fiscal year even if the municipality has already adopted a school budget. The additional $600,000 in state aid is not to be distributed through the previously-adopted school budget. It is to supplement that budget. In this case, it is to be added to $135,653,602 previously appropriated to the School Committee.”
Damrbuch said that the department views the interpretation differently since the school district would be voluntarily giving back ARPA funds if they receive more state aid.
Rix asked Dambruch if a legal opinion was sought regarding the matter.
“We did reach out to our lawyer before we reached this agreement with the mayor and his staff,” said Dambruch.
Dambruch said that there was no written agreement, or written decision from their attorney.
“At this time it was a verbal agreement,” said Dambruch.
Rix said that he was concerned with not having the agreement in writing citing that in November the majority of the School Committee seats are up for grabs, meaning that opinions could change.
“I see this as a situation where different people can rationally look at the same case law or read into that case law different potential scenarios and then come to different conclusions,” said Rix.
Rix and Ward 8 Councilman Anthony Sinapi both said they favor something in writing that can be formally passed.
On Tuesday Rix said that he sees “two potential ways to ensure that the funds are provided in the agreed-upon amount.”
The first one would be that the City Council sees the terms in writing before the Council votes on Thursday.
“The City Council should be provided with a copy of a written agreement between the City Administration and School Dept, saying that the additional amount is contingent on additional State Aid not being allocated by July 1,” said Rix. “ Basically, the City will send the additional funding on July 1 to the extent that it’s not provided in additional State Aid by July 1.”
A second option that Rix proposed is “The City Council could put the additional money in a different line item for contingencies and the City Administration would guarantee that that money will be transferred to the School Dept. if and to the extent that there isn’t additional State Aid in the same amount as of July 1.”
Asked on Tuesday if she plans on calling a vote to codify the agreement, School Committee Chair Judy Cobden said that it would have to be discussed by the Committee and also put on the agenda. She argued that it made more sense to wait until after the budget is approved to draft legal documents.
Picozzi on Wednesday said that there isn’t a expectation that more state aid will come to Warwick this year rather a hope based on the state’s surplus.
“I think it’s a realistic hope,” said Picozzi.
Picozzi said that essentially the city will know what the state aid will be before July 1 which is when the city’s fiscal year begins. If more state is appropriated then that amount would essentially be withheld from the local appropriation and would remain in the general fund.
Asked if he has any concerns that the district may change their mind and ask for the full amount Picozzi said he has no concerns.
“If I had any concerns I would’ve done it differently,” said Picozzi.
Ward 3 Councilman Tim Howe asked the district administration about different “unfunded” mandates from RIDE that are part of the local appropriation saying that he asks about it each year.
Finance Director Tim McGrath said that the district cut as much as they could that isn’t required.
Director of Curriculum Lisa Schultz said that one of the programs was a mandated “green curriculum” for English and math for grades K-12. She said that for elementary school alone it was $1 million in required materials.
“Right there is a million dollars just for the materials,” said Schultz.
Howe also asked if the district is allowed to charge for required programs like summer school.
Assistant Superintendent Bill McCaffrey said Commissioner of Education decisions in the past have determined that school districts can’t charge for summer learning.
Ward 1 Councilman Bill Foley, who spent decades in education said that some state mandates end up not working and it is only determined after the mandate is put in place.
“Five years from now we’re going to be left holding the bag,” said Foley.
McCaffrey said that districts are required to follow the state guidelines.
“We have to operate under the guidelines they established for us,” said McCaffrey.
Sports off the table
Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur asked what the plan is if the budget isn’t funded at the appropriation being proposed. He pointed out that in 2019 sports was cut by the School Committee as a budget cut measure which led to many meetings being filled with students and made it so no business could be conducted.
Dambruch said that after the district administration examined that possibility it was decided to take it off the table.
“We are not planning on cutting sports this year,” said Dambruch.
McGrath said that if the budget isn’t approved then the district would have to go back to the drawing board in order to balance the school district’s budget.
As part of the proposed budget two of the reductions in revenues is $7,000 in state aid and $550,000 in tuition revenues.
McGrath explained that the decrease in tuition revenues is based on the district losing students to other districts and not as many enrolling into the district’s career technical education programs.
Dambruch explained that the district is losing students to places like North Kingstown who have nicer sports facilities and also has career ready programs. She said that for example she has spoken to parents who told her that because of the quality of the fields in Warwick parents decide to send students somewhere else in order to play sports.
Vice Chair David Testa said that it affects their student population greatly.
“That’s a significant drain on our student population,” said Testa.
It was also noted by McGrath that if a district’s cost per pupil is less than what the tuition rate is set at by the state then that district would essentially receive a profit.
“At one level it’s a business transaction for them,” said Testa.
According to the School Committee’s approved budget, personnel compensation makes up 56 percent of the budget for a total of $100.2 million, with employee benefits making up 24 percent at $42.4 million.
McGrath in his presentation pointed out that in FY 23 the district has $3 million in contractual obligations for salary increase and an increase of $500,000 in increases for healthcare. The School Committee also approved a pension correction of $900,000 for the WISE union.
Picozzi’s budget message states “Nevertheless, this budget proposes a 2.8% increase in local support to WPS, reflecting the compensation value of the negotiated teachers’ contract (despite further declines in enrollment).”
Warwick Teachers Union President Darlene Netcoh argued that there are other unions and non classified employees that also received raises in FY 23 which accounts for the increase.
Netcoh said that last year teachers received a 0 percent raise, this year received 2 percent and next year will receive 2.5 percent. She noted that all city employees unionized or not are receiving at least 2.75 percent in FY 23.
Unlike other department votes the Council’s only role in the school department’s budget is approving a local appropriation. The Council isn’t allowed to make adjustments to line items in their budget and instead can only amend the bottom line appropriation or vote for the original proposal.
Picozzi said that he found the school department’s budget to be realistic and didn’t have any areas that could be cut. He said he is more convinced of that fact than even when he was on the other side of the table as the School Committee Chairman. He feels that the Council also will agree.
“I think they were ultimately convinced that they weren’t asking for money that they don’t need, ‘’ said Picozzi.
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